After several days of fierce fighting, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized Palmyra in late May. Once among Syria’s most prominent and profitable tourist destinations, the ancient city is home to some of the region’s most valuable and well-preserved ruins and antiquities.
ISIS has notably been destroying historical sites it views as incompatible with its literal interpretation of Islam. Recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Palmyra was also an important target for ISIS as it was home to one of Assad’s most brutal and infamous prisons.
ISIS wasted little time releasing the prisoners and turning that prison into a pile of rubble. In response, the military pounded the city with airstrikes
Nasser al-Thaer, a 25-year-old activist, says the city’s residents are trapped between the Syrian army’s bombs and the Islamic State’s brutality. “The former randomly bombs and destroys and prevents food and medicine from entering the city,” he said. “The latter terrorizes people and carries out executions in public squares.”
Earlier this month, ISIS released a video showing militants – many of them ostensibly teenagers – executing 25 captives, believed to be Syrians, amid the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. The U.K.-based watchdog group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the execution took place on May 27. ISIS has also already destroyed two Muslim shrines in the city.
Perhaps more importantly for the hardline group, the takeover of Palmyra puts them in control of oil fields, natural gas reservoirs and phosphate mines that could provide crucial funding. Meanwhile, civilians continue to foot the bill as the bloodshed continues and battles intensify between the Assad regime and ISIS.
“Since ISIS took control of the city, the Syrian regime has bombed the city on a daily basis. Dozens of buildings have been demolished, including the local hospital. Every day, more people flee to the desert or Raqqa,” he said, referring to another ISIS-controlled city that hugs the Euphrates river.
“People in Palmyra don’t care about the antiquities right now because they need food, medicine and safety,” he said, adding that ISIS has escalated its campaign against local cultural heritage. “Part of the old city’s wall was destroyed when the regime bombed Palmyra. ISIS members planted mines in the historic temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, but they have not blown them up yet. Nobody knows what they are thinking.”
ISIS has targeted historical sites across the areas it controls in both Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, ISIS fighters demolished antiquities in the Mosul museum earlier this year. In Syria, Sufi shrines have been targeted for vandalism or destruction by ISIS and other Islamist groups, including the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), as recently reported by Syria Deeply.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, has called on ISIS to end its campaign of “cultural cleansing” in Syria and Iraq. “These extremists want to impose a different vision on the world. They want to tell us that there is no memory [of these sites], that there is no culture, that there is no heritage,” she said.
Many Palmyra residents accuse the international community of harboring a greater concern for the city’s ruins than its besieged residents, some 100,000 of whom are enduring a lack of basic needs, including water, food, electricity and medicine.
A U.S.-led coalition and the Assad government have targeted the militant organization in areas across the country. However, ISIS is estimated to control half of all Syrian territory and shows little sign of withdrawing from most regions in its grip.
Riyad al-Qadi, a 30-year-old paramedic at a nearby field hospital, says medical workers have struggled to treat the wounded. “The only hospital in the city is destroyed,” he said. “The medical situation is devastating. ISIS fighters gave us permission to help the wounded, but they require a number of paramedic staff to remain with their fighters wherever they go.”
As with other areas under its control, ISIS has imposed its laws on locals, enforcing Islamic taxes and making shop owners close during prayer times. Those who resist face arrest, public execution, lashing, crucifixion or amputation of the hands.
Umm Iman, a 40-year-old lawyer, says ISIS has already launched a brutal crackdown on those remaining in Palmyra. “ISIS imposed its laws on people and subjected them to Islamic sharia courts,” she said. In addition to introducing strict dress codes for men and women alike, ISIS has banned tobacco.
“The hisbah [religious police] are on every corner,” Umm Iman said. “Many young men were arrested and executed for dealing with the regime. The situation is terrifying and ISIS flags are everywhere.”
Photos courtesy of Nasser al-Thaer